This article is a compact study of expansion in the context of making a piece of art. I believe that expansion is one aspect of all kinds of making of art. It has been neglected topic, even unseen, but the phenomenon is real and it is connected to art making, for it is impossible to make a piece of art without its expansion to some space. A work of art is always located in some space – on paper or canvas, in real or imaginary place, in this world or in digital one – and a work of art must first enter that space, it must do expansion there to take control of it. And it is the artist's task to make this happen.
By definition expansion means the increase of something in size, number, or importance. It relates to artworks in two ways, first, to the actual size of an artwork, and second, to the making process of an artwork. In some cases these expansions are overlapping, like with installations where the piece of art is made directly into some space or room. My main interest in this presentation as a visual artist is to focus on expansion which relates to the working process. Every artwork has its ideal size in where it is at its best. Making a piece of art is like blowing air to the balloon, estimating how large it is necessary to let the balloon expand. The important thing here is to ensure artwork’s best possible condition to make a best impact on the audience, and to find its ideal size. As an artist I don’t see what is the point of doing artworks otherwise. Here stands the art’s connection to rhetoric which is the art of persuasion. Per se, a piece of art must be a convincing one.
Many art related questions are aesthetic ones which are associated with individual personal taste – even questions like defining the right size for the work – and there will never be precise tools for measuring these. But thinking about expansion, and trying to understand it, helps artists to find the ideal state of presenting hers/his work in some context. So, it is important to give expansion a thought. What is the best possible expansion of an artwork? – from inside and towards its environment – is a question of quality for the artist to aim at. This is a taste related standard for a good artwork, and it is a mental tool for artists to understand this target. And for these reasons expansion is worth studying.
Expansion is not the only motivator behind an artist's actions, and perhaps it is not a motivator at all, but a phenomenon which happens in art-making and is mingled into the need of finishing off the work. I think the main motivators of an artist's actions are a need to do something beautiful or good - meaning something s/he likes or something important - and a need to get the artwork done pursuing that goal. Expansion is a phenomenon which happens when artwork is reaching its limits from inside and with interplay towards the outside world. It is an assessment tool for adjusting artwork into the artworld and for making right decisions for making a good artwork.
But expansion is also a method of art-making. Expandism is a term I use for expansion-motivated art, art where expansion is a very strong factor in the making process. It is art done using repetition and composition as tools to do expansion, which at some cases continues till the end of the working process. I invented the term ten years ago when I started to do drawings in a repetitive manner, drawing what I call meditative, reduced or repetition based ones. Soon after that I started to do paper-collages testing expansion-idea by playing with the composition, that is, playing with shapes (the pieces of paper) the game of arranging. In Finnish I have named the ekspansion motivated art to ekspandismi.
In my Master's Thesis – Pelkistetty piirtäminen (Simplified Drawing) – I introduced an expansion based way to draw as one of the simplified drawing methods through which I did ponder various art questions. And a game-like collage making method was also among those methods. It is written in Finnish and it is in the Helsinki University’s database.
Expansion – an unnoticeable factor in making of art
Expansion means that some matter – like phenomenon, people, nation, disease, ideology etc. – is conquering to itself more space, its sphere is expanding. There is the expansion of the universe and expansion is also connected to mathematical and other theories. In the natural world, expansion is evident for example in formation of cell tissue, which is based on the dividing process of cells. But expansion is part of the art-making process too.
The making of a piece of art is a multifaceted task. There is a craft aspect of the working – the ways how the things are done, the mastery of techniques and knowledge of the materials. And there is a physical aspect of the activity – artist’s reactions to the environment through hers/his own body. And there is an aesthetic aspect also involved in this – how the composition is arranged and the measurements done, how the color is tuned to fit in to the whole and how to present the message – If there is any – in the best way, etc. And maybe there are also other facets in making a piece of art, for example mental ones, but this is not important. The main point here is only to locate expansion close to composition. It belongs to the realm of composition and it comes very apparent through repetition.
Expansion starts right away with artist’s actions – like when s/he starts to draw lines on the paper – and it continues more or less till the composition is arranged or even till the end of the working. Of the elements of art expansion is particularly associated with line, shape, space and color, not so much with form, value and texture. Shortly, line includes also dots, and shape is a bounded two-dimensional form, like a one paper piece on a work of collage, and space deals with distances between shapes and lines drawn on the paper. These four are more actively used when expansion is proceeding on the canvas. I don’t want to state that the other three has nothing to do with expansion because in reality in art-making the elements of art are not used separately but simultaneously. Not even repetitive drawing – which is done by repeating simple lines – can’t be done without thinking of space between lines, and texture is also distinct if the drawing is done with oil paint.
To what space is the work of art expanding? Where does this space locate? For me – and for many artists – the space is simply the two-dimensional flat surface on paper or canvas, or other hand touchable area, platform or place. Shapes, color and lines are simply expanding, spreading into that area. In the realm of visual art this is a more easier question to see than, for example in literature, music, theatre and other fields where a piece of art is more a mental than physical object. In visual art there has to be a limited space for expansion, to make it happen and for me that space is quite often a bounded square area on the drawing paper. If the space is restricted to some terrain –park, field, nature etc – expansion proceeds within that, which is obvious with public statues and in many cases of environmental art and with multiple component sculptures. In these “the canvas” is just bigger and a bit more difficult to define.
When I draw it is possible to keep on adding new lines side by side and top of each other in layers till the paper is entirely covered with ink and the area becomes black. So, the outcome of this expansion seems to be blackness. I think that the question, when the artwork is finished, is entirely up to the artist and hers/his choices. It is a question of the aesthetic goals the artist is trying to reach. But in general, when shapes and lines are arranged or at latest when the first tentative layer of color has been spread, expansion has practically reached its limits. After that everything is just decoration of that expansion.
This is true also with the meditative drawings if I continue to draw new layers of lines on the top of the first one. When I draw I normally cover the surface with lines only once. And at this point the expansion is done. And even if I’m not happy with the result and decide to cover the drawing with another layer of lines, expansion doesn’t change so much because all paper was already occupied with lines. And when I continue working my focus is on the general outlook of the drawing and matters like cohesion and texture. A meditative drawing doesn't have an underlying composition, but composition is built up simultaneously with drawing and very often it is ready when all lines have been drawn.
I tend to think that the expansion is largely finished when the structure of composition is arranged. And sometimes, like with repetitive style drawings, this happens at same time as completion of the drawing. I leave the planning and preparing aspects of an art work outside of this study. The philosophical and brain research question of when the action begins – before or with the visible action – is not in my keen interest here.
Two ways of expansion in art making
Next I will look more closely at two kinds of expansions relating in making a work of art – repetition and composition based expansions – which, I believe, are two main ways to explain how expansion happens in the field of art-making.
Expansion by repetition
A good way to demonstrate expansion is by taking a reduced way to draw as an example. This means that the drawing is done by using simple marks, lines or dots. Drawing process begins spontaneously on some spot on the paper by making simple lines on the paper side by side in a repeating manner. Repetition means here that something that has been done earlier is done again. When repetition of lines continues the area of lines grows bigger and the drawing slowly keeps on expanding till the lines are covering all the paper and the drawing is complete. In other words, expansion happens by the increase of the number of the lines. This can be done also with colors, then the outcome is more like an abstract painting than a drawing.
To contemplate around lines, to search for a relaxing state of mind by repetition is important to me when I work, but it is not the main goal here. The concept of expansion also encases the idea of the conquered area as a goal. The goal of finished, completely filled paper is right there at the very beginning of the expansion. So the main point is to finish off the work. This is the driving force behind the expansion. The meditative state of mind is an aspect of my personal style of working, a feeling or a side effect of this kind of repetitive working, which has very little to do with the actual expansion I am explaining here.
I normally start to execute this kind of drawing spontaneously without planning the outcome beforehand. I just follow some simple idea of how I should draw the lines – direction, curvature, rhythm, space and distance between lines etc. – and then I just keep on varying this idea and adding more lines on the paper. And through this repetition of marks the drawing gradually expands into its whole. When the last line is drawn the expansion is complete. This is a definite example of the expansion in art-making.
The repetition based drawing process does not on every time lead to a good piece of art. Because, at least for me, it is to contemplate around lines, and also because it is possible to make bad choices at the beginning and those choices make direction of actions to lead “aesthetically” to the unsatisfying outcome. I think that a piece of art, a good drawing, is a gift that sometimes emerges at the end of the process. And when this happens – when a new piece of expandism art comes into daylight – this is always a moment of surprise and joy.
Expansion by composition
So, when I draw I use repetition as a tool for expansion. But there is also another way to achieve expansion and conquer the empty paper. This happens by using composition as a tool. Expansion is very evident in paper collage making, because arranging the paper pieces – shapes – continues till the end of the working process. But this fits to other techniques too.
When I make a collage, from the start I try to glue the first shape – a piece of paper – to the right place on the paper and next pieces to the best places to improve the burgeoning arrangement. This is like a military strategy in which the expansion is done by taking first the most important locations under the control. I continue working by positioning next paper fragments to the right places to make composition even better.
Some subconscious idea of what is a good arrangement of pieces seems to steer my actions. So, the expansion starts right away by trying to win the crucial spots on the paper and it becomes more evident and deepens as working proceeds further with minor details. This continues as long as the combination looks ready, and all parts are in their right places, which is purely a personal question of taste. But all the area has been taken aesthetically under the control.
The collage making process is a kind of conversation or a game, in which the player is trying to find the best arrangement using the material at hand. The game starts when the first fragment is glued, which changes the situation on the paper. It is no more blank but nascent composition. New situation challenges me to make my next move. So, I put the next pieces of paper on the surface and the composition starts to take shape as I keep on working by reacting to new challenges the composition makes. This is like having a conversation between an artist and the developing composition, which continues as long the work is completed.
Expandism – Expansion motivated art
As I have said, I call expansion-motivated art expandism. The most evident case of expandism is an artwork done with a repetitive style – like a meditative drawing I have introduced. In those, expansion proceeds slowly together with repetition, and expansion of the drawn area continues till the paper is covered with lines. Repetition is a good instrument for doing expansion but it is not precisely the correct notion here. Lines and shapes that are drawn or painted on the paper or canvas need not to be the same kind ones, but can vary a lot and be even contradictory ones. It is not necessary to repeat the same shape of a line or its variations. Expansion is a step by step spreading process, in which an artist is gradually and systematically covering the surface by lines or by colors, figures, dots, or by whatever s/he wants to. And expansion is a strong motivator of this activity. Goal is to cover the white surface gradually by repeating a simple dot or bit by bit adding something more complicated on the canvas.
The other possibility is to do expansion by using arrangement as a tool for expansion, like in the collages I have introduced. In these too, expansion is a strong factor of motivation. But nevertheless, this is not so clear like in artworks made based on bit by bit proceeding expansion. This is because other motivators – value, colour, perspective and form etc. – are coming into the art making process, and these are getting stronger when the working process goes forward. In collage making the presence of expansion as a motivation is clear at the beginning, especially if there is just pieces of paper and other fragments (shapes) you are playing with. But right after there is a topic you like to deal with, expansion is no longer the only important inducement you have. At the beginning of the working process, the expanding, the need to spread the elements of a composition to the right places on the canvas is very obvious, but towards the end other motivators – like unity, beauty and meaning – play a more important role.
This is more evident in figurative paintings. The reason why I don’t see them as expansion-motivated art relates to the motives of an artist and the use of the elements of art. If the goal is to do – say, landscape or portrait painting – with a certain style, then expansion is more obvious at the beginning of the working process when the artist is sketching the composition on the canvas, taking it over. But the expansion is not the only motivator of actions but it is among many others, like imitation and depiction, and it goes less important as the working process proceeds.
Also it is possible to construct a three-dimensional collage using objects, that is, to do a sculpture by adding to it new pieces till it is finished. However, this is not an expansion focused procedure, but artistic working happens around the form. But there is a connection. Sculpture making is like chiseling just one dot on the drawing paper to conquer the drawing area. Sure this is expansion, especially in the context of public art. But in general, singular object-like sculpture's contact to expansion relates its size, not to the working process per se.
Expansion is most evident in art based on some form of repetition, as I have described above, but even in these it is not the only motivator of actions, and there might be many hidden or subconscious motivations also, ranging from harmony to testing of ink. Anyway, expansion as an essential motivator fits best to these and other abstract art styles, in which you are filling the canvas and creative acts are expanding to artwork’s space systematically in some inventive way.
Longer version of this article is at my homepage.